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Massachusetts sides with Microsoft in document debate

Despite criticism, the state adopts technology policy that accepts Open XML as a permitted "open" format.

Massachusetts has changed its technology policy to accept a Microsoft-developed document format, Office Open XML, amid fractious industry debate.

The state's Information Technology Division posted on Wednesday a letter outlining its reasons for including Office Open XML within its technical architecture and responded to critics who argued that the move is a step backward from its high-profile standards-based policy.

Two years ago, Massachusetts created a technical architecture based on standards, including those for desktop productivity applications. As the document formats in Microsoft Office were not standard, the state chose the existing standard, OpenDocument format, or ODF.

Since then, however, Open XML has been ratified as a standard by European group Ecma International and is in the process of seeking standardization at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

In its letter, state officials said that its inclusion of both document formats--Open XML and ODF--was done for technical reasons and without vendor bias.

Concerns over shortcomings in either format are best sorted out in standards bodies, according to a letter signed by Henry Dormitzer, undersecretary of administration and finance and Bethann Pepoli, the acting chief information officer.

"We believe that the impact of any legitimate concerns raised about either standard is outweighed substantially by the benefits of moving toward open, XML-based document format standards," the letter said.

The decision in Massachusetts is a clear victory for Microsoft. Rival ODF is developed by competing vendors through a standards group and is the default format in the open-source OpenOffice desktop application package.

Microsoft executives have been lobbying state officials for a number of years as it developed its technology policy. The choice of digital document formats can dictate the choice of desktop software and a number of government customers, particularly in Europe, have chosen ODF as an acceptable standard.

Wednesday's move was not a total surprise. Last month, Massachusetts proposed accepting Open XML and asked for feedback.

And regardless of document format, Pepoli said last month, government employees affected by the technology policy will continue to use Microsoft Office as their desktop application suite--its current product. That's because Office has features that meet the needs of people with disabilities, she said.

Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, lauded Wednesday's move, saying it "reflects the fact that formats will evolve over time and that approved standards lists should also evolve."

Advocates of ODF complained that the decision does not live up to the state's original directive of using only "open standards." Open XML is an Ecma standard, developed with participation of other vendors than Microsoft, but critics say that ODF has been developed in a more open process.

"Massachusetts--or, more properly, a small number of courageous public servants--did something important two years ago when they took a stand for open formats. It is regrettable that their successors have seen fit to abandon that principled stance," said attorney and ODF advocate Andrew Updegrove, who writes a blog on industry standards.

Updegrove added that Massachusetts could have waited as little as one month to see if Open XML will stand up to scrutiny of the rigorous ISO global standardization process.